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From the June 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 6)

Middle East

Iran: Americans Next Door

Shahram Sokooti, World Press Review correspondent, Tehran, Iran

Iran’s official position on the Iraq war was described by officials as one of “active neutrality.” Iranian media coverage has reflected this ambiguity. The war started on the eve of the Iranian New Year, and for two weeks the country’s newspapers were closed. In the meantime, people’s access to the news was limited to anti-American coverage of the war on conservative National TV (IRIB). After newspapers reopened on April 5, reformists accused IRIB of bias. In an April 7 article, Tehran's reformist Etmad quoted Nasser Ghavami, a reformist MP, saying, “IRIB is supporting Iraq in its war coverage. They seem to have forgotten that they [Iraqis] martyred more than 300,000 of those most dear to us.” The next day, the moderate conservative Entekhab quoted IRIB’s parliamentary deputy as replying, “Our coverage of the war is in accordance with the National Security Council’s decisions.” Tehran's conservative Resalat (April 8) accused IRIB’s critics of “being pro-American.”

While the reformist press tried to remain neutral, the conservative press emphasized Iraqis’ suffering. The pro-reform Iran’s headline on April 5 was “Preparing for the Last Battle,” accompanied by a photo of three U.S. soldiers standing next to a tank. The same day, the conservative Kayhan ran a photo of a U.S. soldier in the house of a blindfolded Iraqi man, with the headline: “Boot-Wearing Invaders in the House of Muslims in Basra.” Kayhan (April 8) accused Iran of sympathizing with the Americans: “It seems that Iran is saying that the U.S. invasion is supported by the Iraqi people.” Yas-e No, the unofficial organ of Participation Front, the main reformist party, warned hard-liners of the consequences of autocracy: “All arrogant...rulers should learn from Saddam’s destiny that they cannot ignore the people’s will and rule by daggers and guns” (April 7).

When some hard-line students demonstrated in front of the British Embassy in Tehran and asked for its closure, reformist newspapers ignored it. But it featured prominently on the front page of Kayhan along with a plea from conservative Grand Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani asking clerical students to “stage a one-day strike in protest against disgracing holy Shiite sites in Najaf and Karbala” (April 8).

April 10 headlines about Baghdad’s fall further illustrated the gap between the factions. Yas-e No’s headline read, “Saddam Escaped,” accompanied by a picture of Iraqi children stomping on Saddam Hussein’s portrait. But Kayhan dutifully implied a U.S-Iraq deal, saying, “Bush-Saddam Game Is Over.” Kayhan’s editorial declared, “Saddam has disappeared...but we shouldn’t be jubilant. The Great Satan [America] is not dead yet.”

The first official reaction to the collapse of the Iraqi regime came from Iran’s conservative supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As usual, one could distinguish between the reformist and conservative papers by the passages used to quote the Ayatollah. Yas-e No’s citation: “Iranian people and officials are ...happy about Saddam’s fall” (April 12). Yet the conservative Jomhury-e Eslami chose the following passage: “The people of Iraq would not tolerate an American dictator” (April 12).

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